Things are constantly changing in the realm of “organics” and it makes shopping for food a real challenge. I became the food nazi I am today several years ago when I read the books The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, and saw Food, Inc. Ever since, I have a stack of questions rattling around my brain surrounding every food choice I make. I would love to be a purist and only buy local, Organic, grass-fed—but there are so many choices and so much that comes into play, including price. Sometimes, it makes me feel downright rebellious and I just want to say “screw it, I’m going to McDonald’s!” Instead, I decided to look further into the current state of organics locally.
Now, I go to the markets around town frequently, and I hear a lot of talk. Here are some comments I have heard recently: “Is that fruit you bought organic?” “Yes, it is! I got it at the Sunflower farmers market.” And another: “My CSA isn’t Certified Organic, but they used to be and they still grow that way.” Or, “I only buy from farmers I have a relationship with, so I can be sure that their standards are as high as mine.”
There is a big range of opinion and knowledge out there. From the idea that anything you buy at Whole Foods must be healthy, to a healthy skepticism of the most well-meaning of our local Certified Organic farmers. Organic has become a buzzword used to describe healthy food, and it’s not always used with integrity. So what does being Organic (with the big O for certification) really mean?
The USDA’s Organic certification process is not exactly a walk in the park. It is an expensive three-year process in which the Colorado Department of Agriculture certifies that farmers are growing with no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, GMOs (including GMO seeds) or ionizing radiation. This certification assures consumers that the produce with the Certified Organic label is produced within USDA standards. It takes three years to complete because it takes time to amend the soil to the point that it meets true organic standards. There are certain fertilizers that are deemed safe by organic standards, but you shouldn’t find Roundup in an Organic farmer’s barn. On top of the time committment, certification is spendy for farmers. Depending on the size of the farm and number of products they’re producing, they can be spending thousands to maintain certification from year to year. That’s one of the things that makes organics more expensive for us as consumers.
So some farmers make the choice to do what they feel is right, using methods that meet all of the requirements for certification, without spending the time and money to display the USDA Organic label. They invest more time educating their CSA members and market buyers on why they do things the way they do. And that relationship helps them retain customers who value getting some transparency and integrity along with their high-quality produce.
I suspect others use organic as a buzzword to influence people who know just enough to have the vocabulary, but not enough to be 100% clear of the definitions. I’m personally skeptical of farmers who use ambiguous wording to their advantage. Too many people have “just a little knowlege”—just little enough to be easily misled. Years ago I was sold on Town & Country Foods’ claim of “all-natural”. Sounds good, right? When I learned more about sourcing my food and started to ask some questions, all they would say was “It’s all-natural.” As I eventually learned, their food was no better than what I could get at the grocery store. But at the time, I had “just a little knowledge,” so that was good enough for me.
There’s always a line of people crowding around the Miller Farms tents at the markets. They offer a great deal: Fill a bag for $10. And they encourage you to really fill that thing up! Their employees like to joke, “That’s organic corn. We don’t use pesticides, so you get a worm with every ear of corn.” I was curious about their methods since they don’t have a USDA Organic sign on their tent. Their website doesn’t mention organic certification or growing methods at all. When I pursued more of an answer, the farm told me “We are not certified, and use no pesticides.” Well, okay. So they’re conventional and that’s fine. They might want to let their employees know that it’s illegal to use the word organic at all if you’re not certified. The claim of not using pesticides is admirable. But it doesn’t tell me they’re not using Roundup, which is an herbicide with alarming toxicities that I would prefer stay out of my food.
Does it matter?
Maybe it doesn’t matter so much to you. We all make our own decisions based on factors like our financial situation, health, or concern for the environment. For a lot of us, the fact that our farmer is making an effort gives us comfort. We can visit the farm, get to know the farmer, look for transparency in their practices, hope for integrity. I still buy conventional produce, I just stick with the Clean Fifteen when I do. The Environmental Working Group’s Clean Fifteen (foods lowest in pesticides) are: asparagus, avocado, cabbage, cantaloupe, corn, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mango, mushrooms, onion, pineapple, sweet peas, sweet potatoes and watermelon.
Where do you fall on the spectrum of Organic to conventional?